Tuesday, December 28, 2010


The ongoing muddle of how to define "replacement" level players drives this little series. Here we'll look at  the pitchers whose careers lasted long enough (at least 1000 IP) for them to be considered valuable enough to use regularly at the major league level but whose overall performance is at least ten percent below major league average (as measured by ERA+).

We'll do this by decades, so as to keep each entry mercifully brief. First up: five poor saps from the first decade of the twentieth century (the decade known as "the aughts").

(ERA+ data: seasons under 150 IP are shown in italic type and shaded in blue.)

Our five pitchers combined to win just over 40% of their decisions (that exact WPct, for those who like numbers on the right side of the decimal place, is .403). Out of a total of twenty-six season-years where they pitched at least 150 innings, they had only four years in which their league-relative ERA (ERA+) was above league average. None of them did it more than once.

Harry McIntire is the only one of these guys who never had a league average season (though he was reasonably close in his age-28 season, which happens to be 1907). Oddly, he's the only pitcher here who was actually coveted by a good team: the Chicago Cubs, falling out of first place in 1909 after three consecutive trips to the World Series, gave the Brooklyn Superbas--a sad misnomer of a nickname at that point, given that the team had just completed a five-year stretch where they'd managed a collective .378 WPCT (287-472)--not one, not two, but three warm bodies for McIntire (two of them mysteriously surnamed Smith).

Odd behavior for such a storied franchise, given that McIntire had actually pitched under his team during those seasons (42-82, .318 WPCT, allowing 4.31 runs per nine innings).

Irv Young, no relation to Cy, about
as blue-collar a pitcher as you can get
Perhaps when we have game logs for these years, we'll be able to discern just what the Cubs saw in McIntire. Whatever that might have been, he improved in 1910, becoming a kind of "sixth wheel" in the Cubs' pitching staff--and actually had a winning record. (The fact that the Cubs actually had an offense--finishing second in the NL that year in runs scored--might have had something to do with it, of course.) The Cubs made it back to the World Series that year, but the Philadelphia A's made quick work of them, winning in five games. McIntire had one excellent relief appearance in Game 1, but it was offset by a disastrous one in Game 3.

As is often the case, older and out-of-favor performance measures (WPCT) work reasonably well when used comparatively: McIntire's own WPCT consistently trails the WPCT of the team he's pitching for, which is what we might call the "pre-sabermetric indicator of a below-average starting pitcher." Many of these guys demonstrate this pattern as well--although Irv Young, a stocky left-hander who was dubbed "Cy the Second" by some wishful-thinking Boston sportswriters after his 1905 rookie season, fits the profile of someone who was pushed too hard and who faded away prematurely as a result.

Casey Patten, looking a bit worse for wear...
Patsy Flaherty would seem to be an example of another phenomenon: what we know call a "AAAA pitcher"--someone who puts things together for a single season and then reverts back to a substandard level. Flaherty's 1904 (19-9 after being acquired by the defending NL champion Pirates) is totally out of whack with the rest of his career. Casey Patten, a lefty who toiled for the pre-Walter Johnson Washington Senators, is yet another type: a reliable innings-eater who is clearly better than any "replacement level" concept and often pitches better than his team. Patten's 1904 season, when you look at it in a certain way, is one of those heroic "ace-like" years (14 wins for a staggeringly bad team that began the year with a thirteen-game losing steak and went 38-113 overall).

No reason to be cheerful: "Happy" Townsend
Happy Townsend is probably the best example of replacement level performance that we have in this little gang of five. The best analogy for Townsend might be someone like Steve Dunning--a highly regarded college prospect brought to the big leagues with no minor league experience, only to fall far short of the achievement level projected for him. Townsend's nickname came from what was described as a cocky, carefree attitude, and he exemplifies the cheeky esprit de corps that players demonstrated in the first half of the 'aughts, when there was still a large amount of internecine warfare between the leagues (as Brian McKenna's essay outlines). In his case, Townsend "jumped" from frying pan to burnt-out shell, landing on the same Senators squad as Casey Patten and compiling some distinctly unhappy numbers (14-53 from 1903-05, with an 80 ERA+).
Brooks Stevens: template/guru for the
post-modern small-market GM?

We'd be remiss in not noting that the economic/contractual changes in the game have probably had as much to do with defining and blurring the concept of replacement level. In today's game, there's no reason to keep respectably bad players on a team for more than three years: they will get arbitration rights and their salaries will escalate beyond the point where they are worth having around. Back then, however, such an idea was more feasible, since the salary structure of the game was what we might call "more self-correlated." You could pay low wages to mediocrity for an extended period of time, an economic model that would soon be supplanted by the now-pervasive (and still controversial) concept of planned obsolescence.

We'll conclude by looking at how often these pitchers managed to post winning seasons, and summing up their simple won-loss performance by year. (There are a total of seven winning seasons here, but only four of them came with sub-.500 teams. That's the same total of higher than average ERA+ seasons we'd seen earlier: the old and new "metrics" are often more in accord than is commonly thought.)

1905 is their "summum bonum in reverse," where they combine for a 59-93 record--a full season's worth of last place performance. Summed together, our five "best bad" pitchers in the 'aughts are nothing more or less than the inverse of Cy Young: their collective won-loss record is 342-514.

It's not much of a legacy, but sometimes there's no choice but to just take what you can get.